Saturday, June 8, 2013

M-Enabling Summit drives home point that digital technology should be born accessible

(Pictured is Boaz Zilberman, Founder & CEO of Project RAY in Israel, which has developed a smartphone for people with visual impairments.)

By Beth Haller
© Media dis&dat

The M-Enabling Summit in the D.C. area June 6-7 drove home a significant point about people with disabilities and new technology in the modern era: In the digital age, technology should be born accessible.

As Betsy Beaumon, a representative of Bookshare, the digital library for people with print disabilities, said, “No more excuses!”

The two-day M-Enabling Summit was “a joint initiative of the Global Initiative for Inclusive Information and Communication Technologies (G3ict) and E.J. Krause & Associates (EJK) to promote mobile accessible and assistive applications and services for senior citizens and persons with disabilities leveraging the latest operating systems, handsets and tablets based technologies.”

The Summit brought together hundreds of participants, exhibitors, and conference presenters from more than 40countries.  About 25 exhibitors showed their accessible wares – everything from a joy stick to control a smartphone (from Komodo Open Labs) to a review system for apps (BridgingApps) to SeniorNet, which provides tech resources for older people.

At the Summit, Project RAY, which has developed a smart phone designed for “eye-free” operations for the blindness community, and Odin Mobile,  a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) on the T-Mobile network, announced America's first mobile service designed to improve wireless accessibility for people with visual impairments. 

“Beginning in July, Odin Mobile will offer comprehensive cell phone service for the visually impaired, including innovative accessible handsets, rate plans for every budget, as well as a unique customer service experience designed to address the needs of its customers,” according to Odin Mobile. “This unique experience will include sending user guides to each of its customers via email in Word and HTML formats and providing customer support that is expert in the accessibility features of its phones.”

The opening plenary of the Summit, “Universal Access for All Ages and All Abilities,” discussed how to achieve universal access to technology and communication for people with disabilities and senior citizens around the world.

Pratik Patel, CEO of EZFire, who spoke on the plenary panel, said, “True innovation is not the technology that will allow us to do all these wonderful things; true innovation is the mindfulness that the object for all technology is humanity or, as I like to think, individual humans. Whether we're discussing apps for cell phones, content on televisions or other devices, access and users go hand in hand. Without the human at the other end, the technology is meaningless. Innovation in mobile requires us to be mindful. Mindfulness toward human beings is the only way we will succeed at creating truly usable and accessible solutions.” (You can read Patel’s full comments here:

People from around the world are trying to make this access happen, according to a panel called “Assistive Apps and Solutions for Developing Countries and Low Resource Environments.”  More than six billion people around the world now use mobile phones, and many of those people are in “low resource environments where high-end handsets, assistive software and accessibility features are still not commonly promoted and used.” In fact, many low-resource countries have more mobile phones than the USA or Canada, explained Steve Jacobs,CEO of IDEAL Group, Inc., and Apps4Android.

Joyojeet Pal, a professor at the University of Michigan, does research about how people with visual impairments in India use technology, especially in the workplace. He said there is a disconnect between students with visual impairments learning to use assistive technology in school and their future employment.

Even though they have lots of training in school, “employers (in India) are unwilling to believe blind people can do a job,” Pal said.

His research also discovered that some people with disabilities in India are beginning to use mobile devices as a replacement for desktop computers. Additional research found that disability organizations want people with disabilities to use social media for advocacy,but the primary use of social media for some people with disabilities is for computer tech support.

Pal made an important point about how negative attitudes toward disability in India affect the society’s willingness to integrate people with disabilities into jobs and society in general.

“People with disabilities have been neglected in developing countries,” said Phosa Mashangoane, General Manager of Consumer Affairs for the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA). He was part of a delegation of six from South Africa attending the Summit.

A perspective from Egypt came from Abeer Shakweer, Ph.D., who is the Minister's Advisor for Social Services, Ministry of ICT, who said people with disabilities are marginalized there, with no focus or strategy on providing access to technology.

“(Egyptian) society thinks people with disabilities are unproductive,” she said.

Another problem is the lack of technology information in Arabic.About 55 million people around the world need software and apps in Arabic and it isn’t available, Shakweer said.

One positive initiative is taking place in Cairo,she said, in which college students there are working with people with disabilities to create accessible technology that fits their needs.  One part of this project is the creation of a unified Egyptian sign language digital dictionary, which never existed before.

Another panel took on the topic of “E-Book Readers and e-Publishing for Mobile Platforms:Competing for Seniors and Users of All Abilities.”

Anne Taylor,Director of Access Technology at the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore,explained, “digital content is inherently accessible – we just need to make it so.”

Everything needs to be made accessible at the front end, at the content creation level, said Betsy Beaumon, VP& General Manager of the Literacy Program at The Benetech Initiative, which runs Bookshare, “a web-based digital library that gives people with print disabilities the same ease of access to books and periodicals enjoyed by those without disabilities.”

“There are 330 million publishers in the USA because everyone is a publisher” as they post, blog, tweet, etc., she said.

Even if apps and devices are accessible, Beaumon said challenges still exist: How to search for accessible content, how to distribute it, how to get it to low income or international readers, how get Braille content to people who need that and how to maintain quality.

Benetech’s Diagram Center has tips on how to create accessible EPUB 3 files:

And the Readium Foundation launched in early 2013 to develop technology that it hopes will accelerate adoption of EPUB 3 and the Open Web Platform by the global digital publishing industry.

The M-Enabling Summit is an initiative trying to address  the needs of people with disabilities and older people globally. Axel Leblois, Executive Director of G3ict, the Summit co-sponsor, explained: “With the increased processing power of mobile devices and expanded network bandwidth many more innovative solutions are now possible. The versatility of handsets, tablets and operating systems, cloud-based applications and global economies of scale of the mobile industry all point towards a growing opportunity for developers to bring life-enhancing solutions for hundreds of millions of seniors and persons with disabilities around the world.”

The next M-Enabling Summit will be hosted by the Australian Communication Consumers Action Network in Sydney in August 2013: